Dodge's Bullet

So what was the first car to register a 200mph closed-course LAP? Perhaps a lightweight single-seater, ORA slippery sports-prototype? Neither, it was a huge slab of Detroit Iron. Preston Lerner reports

Making history, as NASCAR legend Buddy Baker can confirm, is often down to being in the right place at the right time.

In Baker's case, the place was Talladega Superspeedway. The time was 40.857sec. When he roared past the start-finish line in 1970 in his high-winged Dodge Charger Daytona, he entered the history books as the first man to complete an officially timed closed-course lap at more than 200 mph.

"At the time," Baker recalls, "it didn't seem that important. But it's followed me all my life. A lot of my other records have been broken over the years. But this is the one thing nobody can take away from me."

Thirty-one years later, it's hard to appreciate how much buzz the publicity stunt generated. At the time, the lap record in Formula One stood at a relatively paltry 152mph. At Indianapolis, it was a tick more than 171mph. And yet here was a big, old hunk of Detroit iron breaking through the 200mph barrier.

Remember, this was long before nationwide TV exposure and R J Reynolds' immense marketing budget and know-how helped transform stock-car racing from a backwoods motorsport curiosity with a rabid local following into the mighty leviathan known as Winston Cup. Later in 1970, in fact, the Grand National series as Winston Cup was then known would race for the last time on a hardscrabble dirt oval.

During the 1960s, stock cars had gone a long way toward escaping their small-town, small-time roots thanks to increasingly powerful engines that caused qualifying speeds at Daytona to skyrocket from a mere 143mph in 1959 to a whopping 181mph in 1967. But it wasn't until the end of the decade that builders began to master the black art of aerodynamics.

In 1969, tired of being outrun by Ford and Mercury, Chrysler engineers went to work on the bodywork of the Dodge Charger. They streamlined the nose with a pointy beak, then generated much-needed downforce with an ultra-high, way-cool spoiler. Next to the competition, the Daytona Charger 500 looked like a UFO.

Chrysler was so eager to flaunt its new baby, the company race-prepped a test mule and entered it using NASCAR car owner Ray Nichels as a beard in the inaugural Talladega 500. Charlie Glotzbach qualified Chrysler Engineering's #88 Charger at 199.446mph. But drivers were spooked by the awesome speeds being turned on the high-banked oval. Most boycotted the event, and the #88 car never got to race.

"Early the next year," recalls Larry Rathgeb, who headed Chrysler's motorsports engineering staff, "I got a call from Frank Wylie at Dodge PR. He wanted to know if we could go 200mph at Talladega, and I said, 'Of course we can."

On March 24, 1970, Rathgeb and his team went with Baker son of two-time Grand National Champion Buck Baker and the #88 Charger to Talladega, where a NASCAR timing crew was waiting. Thunderstorms kept the team from running in the morning. When the rain stopped, Baker fired up the 7-litre 420bhp Dodge hemi and took to the track. His early laps weren't encouraging. "Buddy didn't think we could break 200," Rathgeb says. "To keep him occupied, we gave him a roll of tape, and he taped up every opening on that car."

Meanwhile, Rathgeb tweaked the car, and Baker got quicker with every five-lap session. On lap 30, running wide open, he turned a speed of 200.091mph. When he pitted, the crew stripped off the tape he'd applied. Four laps later, Baker went quicker still a lap of 47.773sec, or 200.447mph.

"The car was so good I was flat-out around the track," said Baker, who would go on to win four 500-milers at Talladega, as well as the 1980 Daytona 500. "I could have gone a lot faster than 200.1 said, 'Let's go to it and really set 'em a record.' They said, 'Well, the next barrier is 300mph; do you want to break that one?' And I told them, 'Nooo ! Scratch my name off that trophy."

Ironically, neither Baker nor any of his rivals hit 200mph during qualifying for the actual race at Talladega. And later that year, NASCAR officials mandated the use of a restrictor plate between the carburettor and intake manifold in order to limit speeds on big tracks. As a result, no Winston Cup car would exceed 200mph during a race weekend for another 12 years.

The 33-degree bankings of Talladega have been the site of numerous records: A J Foyt did 217.854mph in a Coyote-Ford Indycar in 1974; Mark Donohue pushed a Porsche 917/30 to 221.120 in '75. But Baker got there first And that's what counts.